With the media showing a considerable degree of interest in the Cabinet Office’s list of people who declined to accept honours between 1951 and 1999, it is a matter of some considerably irony that something as simple as typographical error may have led the press to miss one of the most illustrious names on the list.
Look closely at the list and you’ll a find the following line item:
|P A C Dirac||Kt||Coronation & B||1953|
Kt is a knighthood and the rest of the information indicates that it was offered, and rejected, as part of the Queen’s Coronation Honours list – but who, exactly is “P A C Dirac”?
Paul Dirac, whose work in the field of theoretical physics and quantum mechanics is arguably second in importance only to that of Einstein – and some would say the arguable point is whether Dirac’s work is more important than Einstein’s – sported the initials P A M (Paul Adrien Maurice) not ‘P A C’.
Nevertheless the timing of this offer seems right.
In 1953, Dirac was in his 21st year as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a Chair also held by Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and, until 2009, by Stephen Hawking, and most of important foundational work in the field of Quantum Electrodynamics was already in place, not to mention that during World War II, Dirac also conducted important theoretical and experiment work on Uranium enrichment by gas centrifuge.
Dirac was also an intensely private man who was noted for his personal modesty, so it would be entirely in character for his to decline an honour that would have thrust him, albeit briefly, in to the public spotlight.
If, as seems likely, this is Paul Dirac his omission from the media’s coverage of this particularly list is doubly ironic.
Not only has he been overlooked by the press because of a simple typographical error but, from everything we know of his character, one rather suspects that he would not have wanted it any other way.
I’ve actually had a tweet from Dr. Graham Farmelo, author of ‘The Strangest Man: The Life of Paul Dirac’ which confirms that Dirac did indeed turn down a knighthood in the Coronation Honours List:
“In 1953, he turned down a knighthood, infuriating Manci mainly because his decision deprived her of the chance to become Lady Dirac. He did not want people outside the university to call him Sir Paul but to address him by the name he used on the rare occasions he answered the telephone at home, ‘Mr Dirac’.
He did not oppose honours on principle, but he believed that they should be awarded on merit, and no be awarded to athletes and show-business celebrities. When the jockey Gordon Richards was awarded a knighthood by the Queen, Dirac shook his head: “Whatever next?” – (p347-8)
A fascinating man and a book that’s just been added to my own list of upcoming purchases.